In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which marked the end of the Christian persecutions and conferred on them freedom of worship, encouraging the construction of places of prayer.
In virtue of this, the site of St Paul’s martyrdom, which had been a place of unceasing pilgrimage since the first century, was enhanced by the creation of a modest basilica of which only the side of the apse remains. It was most likely a small building with three naves which housed, close to the apse, the tomb of Paul decorated with a golden cross.
The great Basilica of the Three Emperors
Constantine’s little church was soon judged to be too small to contain the flow of pilgrims and the decision was taken to knock it down and build a bigger basilica, changing the position from East facing to West facing.
St Paul’s Basilica, with its imposing Byzantine structure, is Rome’s largest patriarchal basilica after St Peter’s in the Vatican. Its base is 131.66 metres long by 65 metres wide and it rises to a height of 30 metres, comprising five naves (a large central one measuring 29.70 metres flanked by four lateral ones) supported by a ‘forest’ of 80 monolithic granite columns.
From the 4th to the 8th century
Throughout the centuries the Popes continually witnessed to their love of this Church by restructuring it and embellishing it with frescoes, mosaics, paintings and chapels. Leo the Great (440-461) covered the triumphal arch with mosaics, rebuilt the roof and began the famous series of papal portraits which go round the top of the nave and the transept with 265 round mosaics (including the most recent one of Pope Benedict XVI which is lit up) and of which the original series of frescos are kept in the museum next to the Basilica.
In the 6th century Pope Symmachus restructured the apse and built some dwellings for the poorest pilgrims, while Pope Gregory II (715-731) entrusted the tomb of the Apostle to the Benedictine monks and Pope Leo III (795-816) laid the first marble headstone following the earthquake of 801.
From the 9th to the 11th century
Pope John VIII (872-882) had a fortified wall (Giovannopoli) built around the Basilica and Abbey to protect them from potential attacks, while Gregory VII (abbot of the monastery before he was elected Pope) was responsible for laying the floor of the transept, building a bell tower (which was destroyed in the 19th century) and commissioning a splendid door at the entrance to the Basilica composed of 54 panels with silver inlay.
The Golden Age
In the 13th century the Basilica was enriched with splendid works of art: while Pope Honorius III commissioned the great mosaic in the apse (24 metres wide by 12 metres high) work was also begun on the beautiful cloister designed by the artist Vassallectus and in 1285 Arnolfo di Cambio’s magnificent ciborium was added. Another famous work from this period is the candelabra for the Easter candle, a six metre high column decorated with bas reliefs in Romanic style inspired by decorations on the sarcophagi which tell stories from the New Testament.
During the Jubilees that took place from the 14th century onwards, ever greater numbers of pilgrims came to the tomb of the Apostle and on these occasions the Popes undertook major works on the Basilica.
During the Jubilee of 1575 Gregory XIII decided to add the balustrade around the tomb of the saint, while in 1600 Clement VIII had the high altar built and in 1625 Urban VIII had the chapel of St Laurence redone by Carlo Maderno.
In the Holy Year of 1725 Benedict XIII entrusted the construction of a new portico to Antonio Canevari who demolished the old vestibule and added the chapel of the Crucifix (or Holy Sacrament chapel) in order to house the ‘miraculous’ crucifix made of polychrome wood attributed to Sienese artist Tino di Camaino (14th century). Today you can still see a 13th century mosaic icon and a poignant statue-reliquary of St Paul in polychrome wood bearing signs of the fire of 1823.
The fire of July 15th 1823
On the night of July 15th 1823 a terrible fire almost entirely destroyed the Basilica leaving hardly any of the structures intact. Miraculously the nave area of the transept was not burnt down thus preserving Arnolfo di Cambio’s ciborium and a few of the mosaics. However most of the walls of the Basilica had to be rebuilt.
Leo XII was the pope responsible for the rebuilding of St Paul’s and being unable to provide for the enormous costs he appealed for help to the rest of the Catholic world through his encyclical of January 25th 1825 entitled Ad plurimas easque gravissimas. He received a huge response and not just from the Catholic world: Czar Nicholas 1st donated blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli (later used for the two sumptuous lateral altars in the transept) while King Fouad I of Egypt gave columns and windows made of the finest alabaster.
Thus the greatest building site of the 19th century Roman Church was begun and the Basilica was rebuilt in identical style using materials which had been saved from the fire in order to preserve the ancient Christian tradition.
On December 10th 1854 Pope Pius IX (1846-1876) consecrated the ‘new’ Basilica in the presence of a great number of Cardinals and Bishops who came to Rome from around the world for the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.